Friday, April 20, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part V

No Citadel for Limited Atonement Here

I have been advancing reasons why Calvin's tract against Heshusius is not the bastion for the limited atonement advocates that they imagine it to be. The first two reasons relate to the context of Calvin's body of work as a whole and the tract against Heshusius in particular. Limited atonement is foreign to his teaching. Reasons three and four are logical arguments related to the wording of the famous limited atonement quote and the inapplicability of limited atonement to Calvin's argument against Heshusius.

Reasons five and six will be arguments from the context of the tract itself. Readers, bear with me; I promise this will be worth your while. Reason five today, and reason six next time.

Calvin's Theology of the Lord's Supper

The argument that Calvin had with Heshusius related almost exclusively to the Lutheran doctrine that Christ's body is present in the elements of the Eucharist. Any other differences (e.g., the ubiquity of Christ's body and whether unbelievers partake of Christ in the observance of the Supper) are directly related to that fundamental difference. Apart from this difference, Calvin and Heshusius have a great deal in common.

For example, Calvin believed that worthy partakers do indeed partake of Christ's body in the Eucharist.

[I]t is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ....

Unbelievers who partake of the Lord's Supper are eating damnation to themselves.

It is indeed true, that contumely is offered to the flesh of Christ by those who with impious disdain and contempt reject it when it is held forth for food....

And later in the tract, speaking of the condemnation due to unbelievers who partake unworthily of the Lord's Supper, Calvin answers Heshusius as follows:

[A]s they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God.

It seems natural, then, for Calvin to hold that as unbelievers eat damnation to themselves in their unworthy eating, Christ's body is actually offered to them in the Supper.

[W]e maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers...."

* * *

he is certainly offered in common to all, to unbelievers as well as to believers.

Indeed, Christ is given to unbelievers in the Supper.

He [Heshusius - slc] might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy....

Emphasis added. All these quotes are taken from the Heshusius tract, and on all these points Heshusius and Calvin are in agreement. (These same sentiments can be found in the Institutes as well.) In the next blog post I will focus on the area of disagreement between the two men, but for now it is important to notice in summary, Calvin and Heshusius agree on this point, that Christ is offered — nay, given — to unbelievers in the Lord's Supper.

5) The Limited Atonement Argument Refutes Calvin's Theology of the Lord's Supper

Now let's consider the limited atonement advocate's strong point. Here is the Heshusius quote (isolated from its context):

I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

The idea is supposedly this: since Christ did not die for the wicked, how could they eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ which was not crucified and shed for them? It isn't for them, so they can't partake of it.

But if Calvin is really using limited atonement to refute Heshusius's theology, then his victory is Pyrrhic, for his own theology is refuted at the same time. In using limited atonement, Calvin would be hoist by his own petard. A simple substitution shows the problem:

I should like to know how the wicked can be given the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

I substituted the words be given for the word eat, which is what Calvin actually used. But Calvin holds that the flesh of Christ is given to unbelievers in the Eucharist. If Calvin were actually arguing from limited atonement, the very question that Calvin posed to Heshusius could be posed to Calvin himself. Limited atonement would defeat his own theology as well as that of Heshusius. Christ's flesh obviously could not be given to unbelievers if his flesh were not crucified for them. They could not be given his blood to drink if it were not shed for them. Calvin would never have missed such an obvious point as this. It seems clear to me that this is not at all what Calvin had in mind. Calvin is not arguing from limited atonement.

Then what does the quote mean? What is really going on here? In my next blog post I will propose an answer that I find supremely satisfying. It is based on the actual theology of Calvin and Heshusius, and the actual dispute between them. Full details next time.

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